On To Umbria, And The Very Spiritual Assisi

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Italy  , Umbria,
Saturday, December 5, 2009

12.4.09/12.5.09     On To Umbria, And The Very Spiritual Assisi

When we got up this morning (12.4.09), we were in the middle of a cold Venetian downpour – as good a time as any to leave the city, I guess!  After our morning vaparetto ride from Ponte di Rialto back to the train station, we hopped a high-speed train back to Florence, where we switched to a second, regional train for the remaining trip to Assisi. 

[Before arriving in Assisi, we accidentally got off the train one stop to early, at Bastia.  When we realized our mistake, I jumped back on the train and Murray managed to throw one suitcase in behind me – and then the train doors closed with Murray still on the platform!  The train started moving without Murray – oh, crap – but as the train really picked up speed, I finally saw Murray walking toward me again through the adjacent train cabin.  Apparently, he had found another train door further down the platform that had a conductor near it, and the conductor was nice enough to open up the door for Murray (and suitcase) so that he could re-board!  All's well that ends well.  It reminded me of when I was 14-15, and last in Italy with my family – we were all riding a crowded bus through downtown Rome, and when the doors opened to our bus stop, my brother Matt and I were able to get off the bus but the doors closed before my parents could disembark.  I will never forget the look of panic in my Dad’s eyes as he yelled through the door, "STAY THERE!  DON’T MOVE!  WE’LL BE BAAAAAAAAACKKKKK…!"  We finally saw my parents about half an hour later – apparently, the next bus stop was all the way across the river and it took them that long to walk back to us!  Good thing they found us, too, as we had no money or passports with us, and no clue as to where in Rome we were.  Hahaha.]

Assisi is a town of about 26,000 people and is considered the spiritual capital of Umbria.  Set in the mountains and a surrounding valley, it is also a town that may be more tied to its famous son (St. Francis of) than anywhere else on earth!  The entire city of Assisi has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as a holy city that has an old town center and a unique cultural landscape, together with numerous civic and religious monuments, that all are incorporated into its natural environment.  Having just two days left in the country, we chose to visit Assisi as an end to our Italian vacation.

By the time we arrived in Assisi, it was already dark – but as our taxi drove up one switchback after another, taking us further and further up the small mountainside – even in the dark we could see what an incredible view lie behind us!  The cab dropped us off at our Hotel Alexander, where we have a big, modern (just renovated) room – and incredible views from two different directions (from our south-facing window on the fourth floor, we are just meters from the top of the dome of Chiesa Nuova!  From our west-facing window, we have the perfect view of Rocca Maggiore, all lit up at night!).

After dropping off our bags, we walked through our new neighborhood – the very heart of Assisi, just off the Piazza del Comune.  We found a very cute little ristorante for dinner, and had another brilliant meal (have we had bad food in Italy?  Frankly, no.).  I started out with a beautiful mixed salad and a plate of steamed, garlicky spinach (melt-in-your-mouth) – plus strangozzi (thick spaghetti) with mushrooms in a truffle sauce (wonderful).  Murray started with a huge charcuterie board of mixed cured meats (salami, prosciutto, etc. – all the stuff we pregnant women cannot eat, boo-hoo).  For mains, Murray had wild boar stew (tender and flavorful) while I enjoyed a Brusciola pizza (mozzarella, mushrooms, and sausage, with an awesome thin crust).  And, for dessert, we split a piece of tiramisu (although not nearly as good as the tiramisu we had in Rome!).

In the morning (12.5.09), we once again had an included hotel breakfast to take advantage of before heading out to explore Assisi.  (In addition, we decided last night to stay in Assisi two nights instead of one – and take the train on Sunday from Assisi directly to the Rome airport, rather than leave Assisi tonight for a one-night stay in Rome before our flight – don’t know why we didn’t think of this earlier!  Of course, our Hotel Alexander was totally booked for tonight, so we had to switch to a different hotel – Hotel Sole, just down the street.  Our room there is quaint and Italian-village-like, with a fun balcony that overlooks the busy Corso Mazzoni running through the middle of Assisi…  So, we sorted all this out – plus bought our train tickets to Rome for the next day – right after breakfast.]

By 10am, we began our touring day in Assisi by stopping to explore the Piazza del Comune, right near our hotel (both of them!) and considered the very heart of Assisi.  This piazza was once the site of a partially excavated Foro Romano (Roman forum) – so some of the shops lining the piazza open their basements to reveal Roman ruins!  Flanking one end of the piazza is the Tiempo di Minerva, which is now a church called the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.  We slipped inside this church for a quick view of its gorgeous gilded trim work and frescoes.

After walking around Piazza del Comune, we took a city bus up the hill to Assisi’s “biggie” site – the Basilica di San Francesco.  As you probably know, St. Francis is most famously known as the patron saint of animals, but also he is considered the patron saint of the environment and of Italy.  It is customary for Catholic churches (as well as others – many of us Lutherans do this informally as well) to hold ceremonies blessing animals in honor of St. Francis’ feast day on or around October 4th every year. 

The Basilica di San Francesco was built on a hill known as Colle d’Inferno (Hell Hill).  People were executed at the gallows here until the 13th century.  St. Francis asked his followers to bury him here in keeping with Jesus, who died on the cross amongst criminals and outcasts.  The area now has been renamed Paradise Hill.

We approached the basilica walking down a steep and narrow side street.  From its front, the basilica is flanked by a wide expanse of lawn, where currently a large Nativity scene is set up.  And, since it’s built on a hill, beyond the basilica you can see miles and miles of Assisi and its surrounding towns and villages.  The site of the basilica alone is serene and gorgeous – but the interior is even more unbelievable (unfortunately, no photos are allowed anywhere within the Basilica di San Francesco). 

We first toured the upper church of the basilica, which was built between 1230 and 1253.  It is huge inside, and grandiose in style.  One of the most famous pieces of art in the world is the 28-part fresco that circles the walls of the upper church (probably done by Giotto and his pupils, although – interestingly – the identity of these frescoes continues to be debated within the art historian world).  Above each of these 28 parts are corresponding Biblical images of the Old and New Testaments.  Both the frescoes and the corresponding Biblical images are just magnificent.

These frescoes literally revolutionized art in the Western world, as – for the first time – all the gold leaf and flat iconic images of the Byzantine and Romanesque images were eschewed for natural backgrounds, people of all classes, and a human, suffering Jesus.  These frescoes were in keeping with St. Francis’ idea that the human body was “brother,” and the earth around him, “mother” and “sister.”  I was really moved by the frescoes, and generally by the atmosphere within the upper church.  As vast and grand as it was, it also felt very personal and peaceful.

After the upper church, we went to see the lower church of the basilica.  Built in the two years before the upper church, it also was impressive – vast, but with shorter ceilings; marble throughout; delicately carved wooden pews, altar, and tall, built-to-the-wall chairs (for the important people) at the front; and incredible stained glass windows made in the 13th century by master craftspeople from Germany, England, and Flanders.  (The lower church also contained several interesting and beautiful frescoes and other artwork, which I won’t describe here – you can just take my word for it!)

One of the most moving locations in the entire basilica complex is accessed from the lower church, too – that of the crypt of St. Francis.  Built deep underneath the lower church, the crypt, where the saint is laid to rest, contains wonderful, criss-cross-arched ceilings of gold and other brilliant colors.  Pews and other bench seating around the tomb also allow for quiet reflection, and many people were there praying and lighting candles.  It was a poignant experience to visit the crypt of this most beloved saint.

Finally, before leaving the basilica complex, we also ducked into the Sala delle Reliquie (Relics Hall), where we viewed items from St. Francis’ life, including his simple tunic and sandals and fragments of his celebrated “Canticle of the Creatures.”  We also saw the most important relic here – the Franciscan Rule parchment, the “Book of Life” composed by Francis.

After leaving the Basilica di San Francesco and walking downhill through the Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco, we ducked quickly into the Chiesa di San Pietro (huge, but very stark, especially compared to the Basilica di San Francesco) before continuing our walk through the hillsides of Assisi (enjoying splendid views along the way).  After arriving back at Piazza del Comune, we toured the nearby Chiesa Nuova (whose dome we saw just meters from our first hotel last night).  It is worth noting that the Chiesa Nuova was built by King Philip III of Spain in the 1600s (hence, “new” church!) on the spot acknowledged to be the house of St. Francis’ family.

After a quick but very tasty lunch of autumnal vegetables soup, bruschetta, a large corn and avocado salad, and sausage pizza (plus beer!), we  continued our way through Assisi’s city centre to the Basilica di Santa Chiara, located just past our hotel.

The daughter of an Assisian nobleman, St. Clare was a spiritual contemporary of St. Francis and an enormously interesting woman!  She founded the Sorelle Povere di Santa Chiara (Order of the Poor Ladies, now known as the “Poor Clares”).  The Basilica di Santa Chiara, from the 13th century, has steep ramparts and a striking fašade.  The white and pink stone on the exterior of the church, brought in from the nearby Monte Subasio (the case with many of Assisi’s buildings), makes it look like it’s glowing when sunlight hits it!  Again, this basilica also sits right on the edge of a hillside overlook, so the views of Assisi from here were gorgeous. 

Inside, the Basilica di Santa Chiara was lovely.  Similarly to the crypt of St. Francis, the most moving room here was the crypt underneath the church where St. Clare is buried – another place of deep spirituality and tranquility.

From the piazza of the Basilica di Santa Chiara, we took a taxi (I just wasn’t up for the steep hike to the top of the mountain) to our last major site of the day – the Rocca Maggiore.  This massive 14th century hilltop military fortress – oft-expanded, pillaged, and then rebuilt again – was really neat to tour, and offered us amazing 360-degree views of Assisi, Perugia, and Umbria beyond.

Upon leaving Rocca Maggiore, we began our descent into Assisi once again (for part of the way, down a long, narrow staircase built into the hilltop).  On the way to our hotel room, we stopped into a final church – the Chiesa di San Rufino – and toured its interior, as well as its exhibit on Pope John Paul II.  This chiesa was unique in that it had huge glass panels built into the floor that showed more Roman ruins – as well as the remains of several ancient crypts – underneath the cathedral floor.  The church nave also contained beautifully carved statues of Saints Francis and Chiara.

Making our way through more of Assisi’s interesting back streets, we arrived at our hotel room, tired but invigorated by this great place and such a fantastic day of seeing the amazing sites!  We had a late dinner at a nearby restaurant, again enjoying cured meats and mixed bruschetta, beer, and a pizza (Murray), and a large salad and a spinach and sausage flatbread panini (me).  We didn’t get back to our hotel until after midnight, as at dinner, we made friends with a lovely couple from Milan, Roberto and Clara – he a bus driver and she an English high school teacher.  Our conversation was fun and invigorating – sometimes using Spanish as the go-between language when we got stuck on certain words!  Back in our room and in bed quite late, we will be getting up early tomorrow morning to catch our train to the airport in Rome, where we will be leaving Italy altogether.

We really loved the romantic, stunning, spiritually rich town of Assisi, which sits on its little hillside and overlooks the gorgeous Umbria.  From its friendly people and great food – to its narrow, cobblestoned streets leading to little archways here and there – to its numerous, historical churches filled with magnificent artwork – we had an excellent time here. 

And, of course, we have had an amazing time in Italy these last few weeks.  We will be sad to leave this wonderful country tomorrow, but hope to be back again someday!

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Dave on

I'm so sad you're leaving (left) Italy - it's been a nice walk down memory lane from our last trip there so long ago. Assisi especially - I remember St. Francis' church/tomb and the pictures really brought me back. Seeing that from the back on the way into town was spectacular - I have no idea how they would build that now, never mind back in the day. Thanks for this.

Diane Newburgh on

Thank you for sharing. Your writing is wonderfully descriptive, and your photos are also fantastic.... so beautiful.

Pam on

I have never been to Assisi, but I am doing a report. The photos are fabulous. They gave me the understanding of "place" I needed to do my report. Gratefully.

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